An introduction to British and Commonwealth WWII Officer's peak caps.
by OCAD. 5th June 2011. Editted February 2013.
As every collector knows, there is a huge amount of information available in books and on the worldwide web concerning WWII German helmets, while the resources on US M1 helmets is also vast. Visor caps (as the US call them) or service dress caps (known to the British) project bearing and authority, and perhaps out of all the styles of such caps used by the Axis and Allied forces during the Second World War, those of the British are the most stylish, with their floppy understated looks.
Collecting British caps can be a minefield however, due to the lack of collectors resources and also due to the fact that cap design and details have changed little since the Second World War and even beyond. This article will give a brief study of these caps and help answer burning questions, such as How do you know what is real ? How can you date a cap? and Who made it? which are indeed tough questions.
So, how do we know it is real? Well this question should not worry you so much as there are few repros out there and they are obvious, however you should beware in the special case of high ranking Officer's peak caps, where the tendency is to add a wartime badge to a postwar cap. Original such caps are rare and so will naturally command a higher value. The value for, lets say a British Navy peak cap, is ten times less than its WWII German equivalent, which is perhaps why so many people feel drawn to creating fakes and trying to rip off the humble collector.
Seeking to discover who made such caps is also a tough question as British and CW Officer's peak caps were tailor-made / private purchase. However the main players seem to be the famous Savile row lot. Gieves Ltd, Moss Brothers and Bates. Whilst all makers supplied the various arms, Gieves Ltd tended to specialise mainly on the Royal Navy, Bates on the RAF with Moss Brothers and Hawkes & Co focused towards the Army. Of course many other companies were involved in military outfitting, but this seems to be on a smaller scale. Caps were also made in the Commonwealth, most notably Canada.
Makers had to conform to military regulation however as each were independent and, perhaps, due to their suppliers, their caps seem to have their own characteristics, which would also explain why little information is available like what is concerning US M1 helmets and German militaria. It also doesn't help the situation when caps have either had their labels removed or none were fitted, making the maker identification impossible.
Getting back to the important question, How can I date the cap? Well to put it simply, you cannot with any degree of accuracy, unless you have a name written in the cap which can be traced, or your cap already has provenance. If the cap has a Kings crown badge, also known as the GR crown, (and the cap has not been messed with) then that would date the cap to pre 1953. This detail is highlighted below; On the left is the GR crown, while on the right is the ER crown.
King's Crown / Queen's Crown.
WWII Army SD caps had brass side buttons. Postwar Anodised Aluminium buttons were introduced. WWII Royal Air Force and Navy caps used black flat headed cotton side buttons, which changed postwar to black plastic. Canadian and RNZAF caps also used the RAF style buttons while Australian Air Force caps used black or brass RAAF motif side buttons.). The images below show the main wartime buttons mentioned.
Cap chinstraps were black patent leather with slide for Air Force and black patent leather with metal buckles for the Navy. Army peak caps had a similar configuration to those of the Air Force but used a brown finish instead of the patent black.
The topside of Royal Air Force Officer's peaks were generally the same material as the peak top. This feature remains standard today on all RAF junior officer's caps. High ranking Officer's caps have a black patent leather peak with green underside, with the addition of peak mounted oakleaf serves to denote rank. (View the Rank & Insignia Chart) .
Royal Navy Officer's peak caps of the Second World War are much easier to define. The cap peaks are patent leather while the peak underside is green leather. High ranking Officer's peaks had a patent leather rim and felt topside, to which oakleaf bullion was attached, denoting rank. Postwar R/N cap peaks are generally larger and made from more modern materials. It is possible to find early postwar cap with wartime configuration, in this case look carefully at the maker's label and crown shape which should give some hint as to the cap's age.
The vast majority of WW2 army peak cap peaks also used the same material peak as on the body, unless the cap was a dress cap, where the underside was green. However this characteristic is still in use and so cannot be employed as a means of dating a cap.
Cap body & top
Navy peak caps of WWII were blue as standard. A black woven band was passed around the main body of the cap from which the badge was fixed. A white cover was worn for summer season or in warmer climates. Regulations were later changed postwar and now the white top is a standard feature.
Most postwar RN caps are off the frame construction and appear thinner in their top than the padded WWII caps, like USN visor caps. Caps generally have a vinyl chinstrap with black plastic side buttons. The top is vinyl while the peak rim is black plastic. The black woven band on all postwar caps is almost identical to those of wartime. Suppliers of postwar caps include Compton Webb.
Army and Air Force Officer's caps still remain true to the wartime configuration, although materials have changed slightly. Khaki for the Army and blue/grey for the RAF, or navy blue for the Royal Australian Air Force. Generally army SD caps have no band, although high ranking Officer's caps have a red (or other colour, dependent on the arm of service) felt band in place. Two of the major postwar outfitters to look out for are Alkit and Herbert Johnson. The latter still supplying caps to the British Army today.
Leather sweatbands are a consistent feature to all caps (late postwar this has been largely replaced by vinyl). Cloth lining material was dependent on tailor, quality and rank of the owner. Compared to postwar R/N, wartime caps have a certain thickness. Postwar army cap linings resemble quite closely those of wartime.
For Officers, the RAF device consisted of a metal eagle over a wreath with the King's crown dominant. Officer's of Air Rank had a larger wreath device with smaller GR crown under a lion, while the metal wings were centrally positioned. These badges were sewn into the black woven band. For other ranks the RAF device consisted of a brass badge, which was attached to the cap using the same method as with army badges.
WW2 Royal Navy Officer's rank device was similar in construction and style to that of the RAF, but with fowled anchor. However, regardless of status, all Officers wore this standard pattern. Non-comissioned officers had a similar device while Ratings wore tallys on their hats.
Army badges for Officers and indeed men used metal cap badges, mostly with prong and pin attachment. Quality and material depended on rank and status. Officers of full Colonel and higher used embroidered badges.
For an overview of those badges used by all Officer grades of the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, please view our Rank & Insignia Charts here.
The best way to gain some practical knowledge on British & CW Officer's peak caps is to compare original caps with postwar caps. Look at the details, do they meet all the criteria mentioned above and if so, do the details look age and wear consistent to each other?
This article is merely a brief overview of a topic that will be explored more thoroughly at a later date, but if you bear in mind what is mentioned then identifying a pre 1953 cap should be pretty straight forward... well all most!
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